By Michelle Nichols
NEW YORK | Sun Sep 25, 2011 9:54pm EDT
(Reuters) – Two American men jailed in Iran for more than two years for spying arrived in New York on Sunday, saying they were innocent and had been held hostage simply because of their nationality.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, arrested with their friend Sarah Shourd while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border in July 2009, were freed on Wednesday after Oman paid bail of $1 million. Shourd was released on $500,000 bail a year ago.
Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in prison last month after a trial held behind closed doors. Washington denied the group were spies and U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday they should never have been detained.
Flanked by family members at a news conference in New York, Bauer and Fattal said the case against them was a “total sham” with “ridiculous lies that depicted us as being involved in an elaborate American-Israeli conspiracy to undermine Iran.”
“The only explanation for our prolonged detention is the 32 years of mutual hostility between America and Iran,” Bauer said. “We were convicted of espionage because we are American. It’s that simple. No evidence was ever presented against us.”
With no diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution — when 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran for 444 days until January 1981 — several countries worked to mediate the release of the hikers.
Bauer and Fattal’s freedom coincided with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly. Ahmadinejad, at odds with Washington and other western governments over Iran’s nuclear program, described the release as a humanitarian gesture.
“Sarah, Josh and I have experienced a taste of the Iranian regime’s brutality. We have been held in almost total isolation from the world and everything we love, stripped of our rights and freedom,” said Bauer, who is engaged to Shourd.
Bauer said whenever they complained about their treatment, the guards would remind them of conditions at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorism suspects are held, and at secret CIA prisons.
“We do not believe that such human rights violations on the part of our government justify what has been done to us. Not for a moment. However, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S. provide an excuse for other governments, including the government of Iran, to act in kind,” Bauer said.
The men spent the first three months of their detention in solitary confinement before they were put in an 8 foot by 13 foot (2.5 meter by 4 meter) cell together. They spent their time reading and testing each other on various topics and were allowed a short time in an outside room to exercise daily.
During 781 days in jail, they had 15 minutes of phone calls with their families and one short visit from their mothers, Fattal said. They staged repeated hunger strikes over demands they be given letters sent by their families, he said.
“Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten and there was nothing we could do to help them. Solitary confinement was the worst experience of our lives,” Fattal said.
“It was clear to us from the very beginning that we were hostages. This is the most accurate term because, despite certain knowledge of our innocence, the Iranian government has always tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S.”
Bauer and Fattal thanked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the governments of Turkey and Brazil, Oman and the Swiss ambassador to Iran.
They also expressed gratitude to actor Sean Penn, boxer Muhammad Ali, philosopher Noam Chomsky, singer Yusuf Islam, U.S. anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mairead Maguire.
Bauer and Fattal plan to spend time with their families in an undisclosed location and appealed to the media for privacy.
Despite the secrecy about the men’s immediate travel plans, at Fattal’s family house in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park neighbors hung a big blue “Welcome Home” banner and posted other homecoming messages in potted flowers.
The collection of signs and plants grew throughout the day Sunday at the red brick home in the quiet suburb.
One sign included the words “With love from all of Elkins Park.”
Shourd told the news conference in New York that the trio, in their late 20s and early 30s, would be speaking and writing “at great length” about their ordeal in the future.
She said they regret not knowing more about the area where they chose to go hiking but their detention had nothing to do with them crossing the border.
Bauer said they could not forgive the Iranian government when it continued to imprison other innocent people.
“It is the Iranian people who bear the brunt of this government’s cruelty and disregard for human rights,” he said.
“If the Iranian government wants to change its image in the world, and ease international pressure, it should release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience immediately. They deserve their freedom just as much as we do.”